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Working Memory and Reasoning Tasks Can Strengthen Math Skills in Children

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that visual working memory and reasoning skills boost a child’s mathematics skills.
  • Cognitive training can transfer from one area of learning to another.
  • Spatial skills may not be the only predictor for pursuing STEM fields.

Children who use spatial ability—the ability to understand and make sense of dimensional relations among objects—have often been touted as being more mathematically inclined. A new study from Karolinska Institute in Sweden says that may not be the case.

Published in Nature Human Behaviour, the study showed that activities for visual working memory and reasoning help youth improve their math scores more than spatial rotation tasks.

The findings could impact the way that some STEM programs and employers use spatial ability to select candidates.

Details of the Study

Researchers analyzed data from 17,648 Swedish children ages six to eight years old. For seven weeks, the participants performed cognitive and mathematical training exercises, each with a specific focus.

“The visual working memory tasks were mainly (working memory) grid and circle. With these tasks, the child needs to remember a displayed pattern and then repeat it back in order,” explains Nicholas Judd, a PhD candidate in the department of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute and an author of the study. “Working memory is the type of memory we use all the time when we need to remember information and use it for something immediately."

Nicholas Judd, PhD candidate

Working memory is the type of memory we use all the time when we need to remember information and use it for something immediately.

— Nicholas Judd, PhD candidate

Their reasoning tasks consisted of supplying the missing component in a set of spatial patterns. As for the spatial rotation exercises, children worked on rotating a two-dimensional figure mentally, then figuring out how to fit that figure into an outline.

Judd notes that all of the tests the participants were given dealt with addition and subtraction; the findings may differ with more intricate mathematics.

While the children’s math skills improved with all of the activities, visual working memory and reasoning training caused the greatest increase. The sample size of the Swedish study adds to the strength of its results, but it is not without additional limitations. 

“We don’t have long-term outcomes; this is very much what happens in seven weeks,” Judd says. “In an ideal world, we would have long-term academic outcomes. There are studies showing this in smaller samples yet there have also been studies that have failed to show academic outcomes.” 

This wider-range study falls in line with some previous research. But there are other studies that highlight the importance of spatial ability.

Impact of the Results

From employers in STEM fields to colleges and programs seeking STEM students, it has been a long-held belief that spatial skills are a precursor to entering those areas. Spatial ability seemed to equate to success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

However, the findings of the study allow for a broader look at not only the abilities, but at the way children process the information that leads to those abilities.

“These findings are significant for two reasons: First, it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that cognitive training does transfer to mathematics, albeit to a much smaller extent than previously reported. Secondly, our design is unique in being able to compare and contrast the efficacy of different types of cognitive training,” explains Judd.

Nicholas Judd, PhD Candidate

[The findings] show beyond a shadow of a doubt that cognitive training does transfer to mathematics, albeit to a much smaller extent than previously reported.

— Nicholas Judd, PhD Candidate

Learning specialist Rebecca Mannis, PhD, notes the big-picture importance of the results.

“The more we can help kids understand how to approach a task or information and how to break it down, self-monitor, and then rework the information, the more our kids can develop systems that transfer for the long run of different learning or work contexts,” she says.

Strengthening Math Skills

While the skills that were tested in this study may not be a strength for every child, there are ways to help a student grow cognitively in the mathematical arena.

“Using activities with a spatial bent to help kids understand their learning and improve problem-solving—as separate activities and as they relate to actual school learning—and helps kids develop ways of approaching material with success and confidence,” Dr. Mannis advises.

The actual skill benefits the child, as does the effort of going through the process to find the solution.

“At a young age—between 4 and 8—I would recommend challenging them in their daily life. Ask them to think and reason about different possibilities and scenarios. Try to spark intellectual curiosity! Of course, in a fun way, this might also strengthen their openness to new experiences, which has been shown to be correlated with academic achievement,” Judd concludes.

What This Means For You

As the study notes, spatial skills, while of great value for STEM careers, may not be the only predictor of success in that arena. A child who spends time reinforcing their reasoning and visual working memory skills can find that growth transferring to other areas.

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  1. Judd N, Klingberg T. Training spatial cognition enhances mathematical learning in a randomized study of 17,000 children. Nat Hum Behav. Published online May 20, 2021. doi:10.1038/s41562-021-01118-4